The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Someone’s leaving letters in 31-year-old taxi driver Wang Jun’s cab:

I watch you most days. I go to the Maizidian housing compound where you live and watch you…Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you. I pity your poor wife, Driver Wang. What’s the bond of matrimony compared to the bond we have shared for over a thousand years? What will happen to her when I reappear in your life?

What will become of her then?

The city is Beijing where Wang drives his taxi and lives with his 29-year-old wife, Yida, a masseur and their eight-year-old daughter, Echo, in a one bedroomed apartment.

Wang’s father and step-mother also live in the city. Wang Hu was a government official who smoked, drank and slept with as many women as he chose but in 2004 he had a stroke which left him ‘paralysed on his left side and had reduced motor function on the right’. Lin Hong uses her role as his primary carer to ‘exact her revenge for fifteen years of misery’.

The letters keep arriving and are intertwined with the story of Wang’s current life in Beijing – of his family; of his friend, Baldy Zang, whom he shares a taxi with, and of Zeng Yan, someone important in his youth who Wang seeks out in relation to the letters.

The second letter tells Wang they have a purpose:

To scatter beams of light on the darkness of your unknown past is my duty. For to have lived six times, but to know only your latest incarnation, is to know only one-sixth of who you are. To be only one-sixth alive.

They then go on to detail Wang’s other five incarnations, taking us through a history of China via the Tang Dynasty where we met a sorceress and a eunuch; the Jin Dynasty and Mongol Slaves; the Ming Dynasty and Emperor Jiajing’s concubines; the Qing Dynasty and the Tanka, and a girls’ school the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao.

The Incarnations considers ideas of self-knowledge – do we really understand who we are? and if/when we do what drives us to contain that knowledge, hiding it from others? It looks at the repression of women across the centuries, of sex and violence and the link between the two, and of mental health.

The novel’s structure moves smoothly between Wang’s present and his pasts with the letter device providing the transitions. While Barker adopts a different tone for each of the sections set in the past, successfully giving each its own voice and style without any of them feeling out of place within the novel as a whole. Not an easy feat.

The Incarnations is a wonderful novel. It’s inventive; it takes its themes seriously without allowing them to overwhelm the story; it’s utterly absorbing.

The publicity material for the book suggests it will appeal to fans of David Mitchell. With an Eastern setting and a theme of reincarnation, I can see why. However, Barker has created something entirely her own. The one thing The Incarnations really should’ve had in common with David Mitchell is it should’ve been on the Booker list.

 

Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

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